It was late July, and the monsoons had finally arrived in Delhi.
I was in just the initial planning phases for my next trip to Kokrajhar in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District, home of the Bodo tribals, which was to be the epicenter for my reportage work. Clashes there had displaced more than 400,000 ethnic Bodos and Bengali Muslims just over a year earlier, which I had documented.
Meanwhile, in the national capital, the government finally gave the go-ahead for the formation of Telangana, a new southern state that was to be carved out of Andhra Pradesh. Soon afterward, many areas in the northeast saw a renewed call for statehood.
I was particularly interested in the Bodoland areas, where people were calling for a separate state of Bodoland, and Karbi Anglong, one of the largest hill districts in India. The residents, Karbis, are one of the major ethnic groups in the North-East and the dominant population in this part of Assam, and were also demanding their own state. In my initial years as a photographer, I had spent considerable time in both these places covering conflict-induced displacement.
I found out, through my sources in the field in Kokrajhar town, that the Bodoland residents would be putting up a rail blockade starting Aug. 2 in Kokrajhar to draw attention to their demand for statehood. At the time, I was still in Delhi, and I was told that traveling by road wasn’t safe. I decided to go anyway, first flying to Guwahati on the morning of Aug. 1 and then catching the evening local from the Kamakhya station in Guwahati to Kokrajhar.
As it was the last day before the rail blockade, hordes of people were on the train, heading home. Kokrajhar has seen much violence in the past few decades, and everyone seemed edgy as I got into town.
Nearly 100,000 people turned up the next morning, standing on the railway tracks, blocking all rail traffic connecting mainland India to the northeastern corridor. The chants of “Why Telangana? Why not Bodoland?” stopped only later in the evening. I had never seen such a gathering in this idyllic small and sleepy town. People had come from far-flung villages all over western Assam to ask for a separate homeland.
There was a strike the next day, a regular occurrence in these parts, followed by another huge rally. This was followed by another strike, which went on for a full 72 hours, bringing the town to a total standstill. Even the cooking gas in our hotel ran out, which meant limited food for a few days.
Meanwhile, local news reports were suggesting that numerous government buildings had been torched and train tracks removed in the Karbi Anglong district by angry activists of different organizations demanding a separate state.
Karbi Anglong, the widest district of Assam with an area of 10,434 square kilometers (4,000 square miles), has mostly been in news for its militancy and ethnic disturbances, but the statehood movement, which started in 1960, had been fairly subdued in recent years. The fresh demand of statehood in Bodoland seemed to have also revived the separatist sentiments of those in Karbi Anglong.
On July 31, an angry group of students marched up to the Karbi Anglong Autonomous District council in Diphu, the district headquarters of Karbi Anglong, to plead with their leaders to hold talks with New Delhi on giving the area its own state.
Subsequently, security forces, including the Assam police and Central Reserve Police Force cadres, were deployed to disperse the crowd, which refused to budge. Eventually, the officers started firing tear gas canisters and live bullets without any warning, which led to the death of one youth and injuries to nine others. Then, the angry mob started torching government buildings and public vehicles in Diphu, the district headquarters of Karbi Anglong.
I immediately started looking for a way to get to Diphu, which I eventually reached with much difficulty. After hopping on unreserved, on a Guwahati bound Rajdhani Express at Kokrajhar station, which was now running with an escort, I soon found myself back in Guwahati.
Diphu in Karbi Anglong is but a six hour drive from Guwahati, the next few days was spent tirelessly looking for a driver who could take me in, but the deteriorating law and order situation in the area seemed to act as a deterrent. I headed there on August 8, just a day before Eid, promising to let the driver return the same day.
Meanwhile, protesters in the Darjeeling Hills of West Bengal had escalated their demands for their own Gorkhaland. They had blocked access to the hills for close to two weeks by the time I decided to head to Darjeeling. Reporting in Assam can be a tedious task, with access and connectivity being a struggle, but I thought the story wouldn’t be complete without images from Darjeeling, as it sits atop the narrow strip of land that connects mainland India to the northeast.
After finding a driver who would take me to Darjeeling from New Jalpaiguri or “NJP” as its popularly known, for triple the usual price, we spent four hours winding through empty mountain roads that were picketed and blocked by villagers at regular intervals. I would then get out of the car with my camera and have a long conversation with the locals, who would then let us through.
The streets of Darjeeling were mostly empty during the day, but they would fill up in the evenings with crowds being addressed by local college student leaders asking for Gorkhaland. I stayed for many days photographing and collecting stories.
This body of work was made possible by a grant from the Manuel Rivera Ortiz Foundation for Documentary Photography and Film, 2013.
Vivek Singh, born 1980 is from Haryana, India. He started his Photojournalism career with staff positions at an Indian Newspaper and Magazine. He is based out of Delhi(NCR).